Jim Rutherford: Who Needs Defensemen, Anyway? (Updated!)

THN's Draft Preview magazine is perhaps the best thing they do; they always get some good quotes on different prospects, and provide basic information on players that are often unknown to NHL fans.  They also give a snapshot into how teams think entering the draft; consider, for example, this quote from Luke DeCock's Carolina Hurricanes preview:

One draft day definite: Don't expect the Canes to take a defenseman early following the Jack Johnson fiasco, when he refused to sign and was eventually dealt to the Los Angeles Kings.

Rutherford would prefer to pursue older defensemen - a la Joni Pitkanen - rather than draft and develop them. 

That quote was a bit of a shock to me, so I took a look at who the Hurricanes have draft since Johnson was traded (in September of 1996).  The team has taken ten players, including only two defensemen, and the highest pick they've used was 105th overall (in last year's draft on Michal Jordan).  Jordan, incidentally, is making good progress; he's doubled his goal total from the year previous (scoring 12 goals) and led Plymouth of the OHL in plus/minus (+28).

My first reaction was that this is an unbelievably stupid decision.  After all, 40% of the skaters on the ice in 5-on-5 situations are defensemen; to sacrifice such a large group of players based on the actions of one disappointment would be asinine.  It would make as much sense (more, even) to pass on all NCAA players - something the Hurricanes also seem to have done, with nine of their ten selections over the last two years coming from the CHL.  The lone selection, 2008's 45th overall pick Zac Dalpe, came from the BCHL and spent last season at Ohio State.

My second reaction was something else.  Despite the stupidity of making such a decision based on one bad experience (if that was indeed their reasoning), I don't know that an NHL team would go wrong by eschewing defensemen in the draft.  Kent W. (of a variety of blogs, including SBN's Matchsticks and Gasoline) has convinced me through a variety of posts that NHL teams are better off passing on goaltenders; on the whole, it's very difficult to accurately predict a goaltenders' performance down the road, and many of the best are never drafted.  I'd guess that the reasons for this are multiple, but I would imagine the basic ones to be that a) a goaltender's development curve is longer than that of a skater and b) statistics and observation do a poorer job of tracking actual ability for a goaltender than they do for a skater.  I'd guess that many of the same arguments can be made for defensemen vs. forwards - they generally do take longer to develop and on top of that statistics and visual observation are much poorer at reflecting their actual ability than the same measures are for forwards.

Jim Rutherford: crazy like a fox, or just crazy?

UPDATE: I took another peek at the Hurricanes drafting record, and their last major bust was 2001 first round pick Igor Knyazev, who they picked 15th overall out of the RSL.  Since than, they haven't selected a European in the first three rounds, and of the 46 players the team has selected, only four have come from Europe.

It may be a coincidence, but if so it's a big one.  It seems to me that the Hurricanes are making a mistake if they decide to change their draft strategy based on one poor selection.  On the other hand, it may be possible that the team has decided to focus its scouting in North America for other reasons; players are already adapted to the game, or more likely, because it's far cheaper.  As far as I can tell, the Hurricanes only have one European scout (Robert Kron).

Lastly, the man directing the Hurricanes scouting efforts is none other than Marshall Johnston, who has built a tremendous reputation based largely on his work at the draft table; I'd be very interested to hear him comment on draft strategy.

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